Unabated to the QB, Week 11: In Defense of Ricky Williams

Over at Deadspin, Will Leitch recently made a list of people who had had a particularly bad decade, or as Leitch put it, “reputations that were devastated by the last 10 years.” This list included Ricky Williams.

That list no longer has any credibility.

Sure, when Ricky Williams graduated from Texas in 1998, he was college football’s all-time leading rusher—a mark that would be passed a year later by Ron Dayne, who really deserves to be on this list but isn’t. Williams entered the NFL with high expectations, generally because Mike Ditka moronically traded the entire draft and his professional dignity to land Williams in New Orleans. Although Williams hasn’t quite lived up to those expectations, he’s still been one of the best running backs of the decade; on Thursday night, he surpassed 7,500 rushing yards since 2000, which isn’t half-bad for someone who had an “awful decade.” Ron Dayne would certainly jump at the opportunity to double his career yardage.

But there’s still the idea that Ricky Williams has been a major disappointment. Much of the resentment toward him, of course, stems less from his performance on the field than from his eccentricities off of it—namely, that Ricky Williams decided he’d rather smoke marijuana than play football for a little while. Now, I’m not going to sit here and say it was noble of Williams to retire from the game to sit at home (or in Asia) and blaze; but, is it acceptable for us to excoriate someone for leaving a professional sport that he clearly didn’t enjoy all that much—Williams’ foibles with the press are well-documented—at the same time many of us are praising Andre Agassi’s honesty in Open? What’s the difference between these two, outside of the fact that Williams was honest at the time and Agassi lied to get past the ATP’s ludicrous drug testing? Andre, you tested positive. Oh, you say you didn’t mean to? Our mistake.

They were both precocious athletes who didn’t have the same amount of passion for their sport as we want our athletes to have (within limits, of course; it retrospectively galls us when we find out how uber-competitive Michael Jordan is during his Hall of Fame speech, even though we pretty much knew it all along). Both had excellent starts to their careers; most people forget that Williams ran for a league-leading 1,853 yards in 2002, which is the 12th-highest total of all-time.* (That same year, Williams’ Dolphins would have won the AFC East if not for what I contend is the dumbest play-calling sequence of the decade: Up three and inside his own 20 late in the fourth-quarter, Dave Wannstedt called THREE consecutive pass plays with Jay Fiedler at quarterback instead of handing off to the best running back in the league. Miami punted, the Patriots drove down and kicked a game-tying field goal and then won in overtime. The Jets ended up winning a three-way tiebreaker at 9-7 to claim the division.)

*One thing striking about that list is Tiki Barber’s late-career success. There are only six times where a running back that is at least 30 years old ran for 1,500 yards or more: Walter Payton did it twice, Corey Dillon and Curtis Martin once, and Tiki Barber did it twice. Barber ran for more yards than anyone 30 or older in history in 2005, and then the second-most yards of anyone 31 or older in history in 2006. I’m not saying Tiki Barber is a Hall of Famer; I am saying it’s a lot closer than anyone suspects.

After a down year in 2003—likely due to overuse and the “Curse of 370”—Williams retired in 2004 and then served suspensions that prevented him from being a full-time player again until 2008, when he teamed up with Ronnie Brown for one of the league’s best rushing duos. This season, the Dolphins are proving once again how an innovative rushing attack can mask weakness at the quarterback and wide receiver positions, even in an era where passing is king. Williams is an integral part of that: His 5.3 yards per carry are sixth-best in the league. It’s been an understated yet impressive comeback for Williams.

Similarly, Agassi appeared in seven Grand Slam Finals between 1990 and 1995, winning four of them. He won the Gold Medal in the 1996 Olympics, and then he kind of took 1997 off. He went 11-10, finished the year ranked 122nd in the world, and used crystal meth. He lied about it to avoid a suspension, then came back with a vengeance in 1998-00 with the best stretch of his career, reaching the No. 1 overall ranking and winning three Grand Slams in the span of a year. Because of his comeback, we loved Andre Agassi, who was always the more charismatic foil to the bland dominance of Pete Sampras.

What’s different, then, between Williams deciding to take time off to recharge his batteries and Agassi’s essentially doing it without telling anyone (and lying about it)? Even the drug Williams used was far less harmful than Agassi’s. Why can’t we cut Ricky some slack?

  • Jets Bash of the Week: The Jets are 1-6 since I instituted the Jets Bash of the Week. I win.
  • Chiefs Plug of the Week: After losing 30 of 33, the Chiefs are 2-0! Haley for Coach of the Year?
  • The best thing Jim Zorn has done in Washington: Wear the maroon jerseys at home more often. The worst thing* Jim Zorn has done in Washington: Wear the maroon jerseys with the maroon pants on Sunday.

*This is not the worst thing Jim Zorn has done in Washington.

  • Years from now, when they’re facing off in the Super Bowl for the sixth consecutive season, we’ll remember how the Matthew Stafford/Brady Quinn rivalry started on Sunday, November 22, 2009.
  • I still think Baltimore is the best team in the AFC North; I no longer think the Ravens will make the playoffs.
  • So wait, maybe Denver and the Jets aren’t that good after all! And the Chiefs can still run off six more to reach my 9-7 pick!
  • At the beginning of the season, I thought the Titans would go 11-5 and the Texans 9-7. One of those nine expected Houston wins came in their home Monday Nighter with Tennessee. Last week, I picked the Titans to beat the Texans, even though Houston’s season had gone more or less as I expected, and Tennessee’s had been awful. That’s how little faith I have in the Houston Texans.
  • Isn’t it weird to think that the Texans have one of the longest playoff droughts in the NFL? That pretty much every team has made the playoffs since they came into the league? That most expansion teams—even historically bad ones like the Buccaneers—made the playoffs several years quicker than the Texans? That the Cleveland Browns had a similar eight-year playoff drought in the ‘90s, only Cleveland didn’t have a team for half that time? Isn’t that weird?
  • Karma will get Brett Favre, and it will be spectacular when it does.
  • When Jamaal Charles (how do we feel about Jamaal with that many a’s?) ran back the opening kickoff against the Steelers, I thought it was pretty amazing Pittsburgh had allowed return TDs in back-to-back weeks. Then I heard they had allowed a return TD in eight straight weeks! How does that happen? How come we didn’t make a big deal about seven in a row? Why wasn’t this a frontpage story in The New York Times? Eight? That’s insane!
  • Someone on ESPN said having Thanksgiving Day games in Detroit and Dallas every year gave those teams an unfair advantage. Whoever that was forgot to back up that statement with hard statistical data, like how the two teams combined are 7-11 on Thanksgiving Day this decade, or that they’re the only two NFC teams not to win a playoff game this decade.
  • Shakeups in the SBCS! The top three stay the same, but it’s getting real tight among them: New Orleans, Indianapolis, and Minnesota. With #4 Cincinnati and #5 Pittsburgh losing last week, New England and San Diego climb into the top five.
  • The real question: Would a Pittsburgh win over Cincinnati in college football—to clinch a Big East title for the aforementioned Wannstedt—make up for the Steelers’ two losses to the Bengals? And would a Cincinnati win give the Queen City its greatest sports year since at least 1990?

Prior to the Week 11 Snap:

Last Week: 7-9

This Season: 61-83

DETROIT (+11) over Green Bay

This Lions team has some spunk. I’m totally on the Jim Schwartz bandwagon.

Oakland (+14) over DALLAS

I’d take Gradkowski over Romo right now.

DENVER (+6.5) over NY Giants

They won last week, but they still don’t look good.

HOUSTON (+3.5) over Indianapolis (outright)

Newfound faith in Houston! Indy can’t keep playing with fire; Andre Johnson burns them.

Cleveland (+14) over CINCINNATI

A bit much for this Bengals’ offense.

MINNESOTA (-10.5) over Chicago

It’s about time AD ran for like 400 yards in a game, right?

PHILADELPHIA (-9) over Washington

Without Portis or Betts, can’t see the Skins scoring much.

Miami (-3) over BUFFALO

AFC Wild Card Miami Dolphins. You heard it here, probably like third.

TENNESSEE (+2) over Arizona

Cards have to lose a road game sometime, don’t they?

Seattle (-3) over ST. LOUIS

The Seahawks are better than what we’ve seen.

Tampa Bay (+12) over ATLANTA

Interesting to see if Freeman can exploit that terrible Falcon secondary.

NY JETS (-3) over Carolina

They won’t make the playoffs, but this is a big game for Mark Sanchez’s confidence long-term. Needs to see a W.

Jacksonville (+3) over SAN FRANCISCO

I see a Nedney FG deciding this one.

SAN DIEGO (-13.5) over Kansas City

The two hottest teams in the AFC West!

BALTIMORE (-2.5) over Pittsburgh

Ravens need it more.

New England (+3) over NEW ORLEANS (outright)

Pats should’ve beaten Indy on the road, and Indy’s better than New Orleans.

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4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by doc on November 24, 2009 at 9:59 PM

    Growing up in D.C. I attended 10 consecutive years of Redskin games in the 60’s and early 70’s. They always wore maroon tops and gold pants at home and white and gold on the road. That’s the way it should be. Their only other problem is they completely, unequivocally suck, thanks to Dan Snyder.

    Reply

  2. For the record … it was a mistake to put Ricky on that list in the first place. I hope the REST of some credibility. Though, darnit, I doubt it.

    Reply

  3. Posted by Tim on November 25, 2009 at 2:01 AM

    Yeah, the only other one I really had any qualm with was Mike Martz, since he did go to the Super Bowl in ’01. Taking a glance at Kevin Spacey’s IMDB page for this decade really opened my eyes. But I heard he and Roberto Benigni are planning something BIG for 2010.

    Reply

  4. […] Roger Ebert link comes from Deadspin’s Editor Emeritus and current New York scribe (and one-time NPI commenter!), Will […]

    Reply

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